20 Tips for Hiking the Appalachian Trail from an AT Thru-Hiker

Woman thru-hiker holding trekking poles smiling towards the camera while hiking the Appalachian Trail
Tips for Hiking the Appalachian Trail from an Experienced AT Thru-Hiker

Hiking the Appalachian Trail can be the experience of a lifetime, a muddy slog, or something in between. So whether you’re looking to section hike, day hike, or are aiming to thru-hike all 2,200 miles, it’s crucial to be prepared.

I completed a northbound thru-hike in 2021 and am a proud member of the “experience of a lifetime” camp. I’m sharing how long it takes to hike the Appalachian Trail, when to start, what gear to bring, and more.

There is one caveat: all of these important decisions ultimately rest with you, dear hiker. Perhaps you’d like to spend more days in trail towns, or your resupply logistics will demand that you crush more miles.

Regardless, these suggestions will help you start planning and preparing for your thru-hike. Without further ado, here are my 20 best tips for hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Pick Your Start Date Wisely

Silhouette of icy trees against a blue sky
Choosing the right start date is crucial to a successful AT thru-hike

The Appalachian Trail doesn’t require permits for thru-hiking (yet), so you can hit the trail any day you like. This decision mainly boils down to weather factors and if you want to hike northbound or southbound, aka NOBO or SOBO.

NOBO hikes typically kick off in February and March. That means hikers often face rough weather at the start but can enjoy mild spring hiking and longer days. NOBO is also much more popular, so you’ll have plenty of company.

Meanwhile, SOBO hikers depart Maine’s Mount Katahdin in the summer. Some trail hostels close in later months, but you’ll have a quieter hike and get to see the Appalachian range’s renowned fall colors. Both SOBO and NOBO hikes take between three and six months, so plan around any real-life deadlines.

Budget (and Then Some)

By now, you might be wondering how much all of this will cost. Without counting your gear, the price tag can vary widely depending on the kind of thru-hike you have in mind.

On one end of the budget spectrum, there’s the dollar-per-mile strategy (so, $2,198).

On the other end, some hikers shell out big bucks to hike in style. Staying in hotels, eating at restaurants regularly, and hiking fewer miles per day will drive the cost-per-mile price up significantly.

Average costs for most thru-hikers will run between $3,000 and $6,000, or about $1,000 per month spent on trail.

Trail conditions and weather are unpredictable at best, so build in some financial cushion for emergencies. You never know when you’ll need to splurge on a hotel room or a new set of trekking poles.

Get “In” Gear

If you’ve made it this far in your thru-hike research, you probably already know the gear essentials, like water filters, sleeping bags, and, of course, backpacks. But there are several other items that can at least improve your hike.

My top three picks? A raincoat and pants (ideally zip-off) to stay dry during downpours. For similar reasons, a heavy-duty trash compactor bag to use as a pack liner. And a pair of lightweight, slip-on shoes, so you can kick off those sweaty boots when you reach camp.

Gear discussions are a huge part of life on trail. If your gear isn’t working for you, keep an ear out for what other hikers like, and don’t be afraid to try something new.

Ship Items Up the Trail

AT thru-hiker wearing a rain coat and holding trekking poles standing at the halfway point of the trail
Reaching the midway point of the AT

Maybe you’re holding on to some gear you don’t need now but will want later. Or, you’re coming up on a town with limited resupply options. Or, you have some favorite foods you can only get in that one store back home.

USPS post offices hold mail for hikers along the Appalachian Trail, making it easy to send and receive items. Address packages to C/O General Delivery, the town name, and the zip code. Also include the words “Please hold for AT Hiker” and your estimated arrival date.

You can even “bounce” mail down the trail, shipping a box at one post office and picking it up wherever you need it next. Bounce boxes will help you parcel out supplies and gear over extended periods.

Ditch the Dead Weight

Hikers say every ounce feels like a pound once it’s on your back, so knowing what gear to leave behind is just as important (if not more so) than knowing what to bring. I saw quite a few hikers sending home similar items within weeks of starting the trail.

First, we have umbrellas. Even ultralight umbrellas are tough to juggle with trekking poles. Next, camp lanterns go unused since hikers rarely stay awake past sundown, aka hiker midnight. Finally, cameras – using your phone camera will save both time and weight.

If you bring something you wind up not using, simply ship it home from the nearest post office. You can also drop unwanted items in a hostel’s hiker box for someone else to try. You never know; one hiker’s trash could be another’s treasure.

Execute the Perfect Resupply

Just kidding! There’s no such thing as the perfect resupply.

But if you would like to try, you need to balance weight with calories. Hiker hunger is real, and when you’re putting down serious miles, you’ll need much more than a measly granola bar to get through the day.

When you get to a grocery store to resupply, aim for food with high protein and fat content, like tuna fish packets, instant ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, powdered Breakfast Essentials, and protein bars. Throw in some instant coffee or your favorite candy to get you moving in the morning.

You can also bump up your calories with small additions. I often put freeze-dried vegetables and butter in my meals and saw other hikers snacking on wedges of Parmesan cheese. Yes, cheese. If stored properly, dairy products keep surprisingly well.

Get Comfortable With Cooking

Ultralight backpacking stove cranking out a flame while boiling water in a titanium mug
Carrying a lightweight camping stove is worth the weight in your pack

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want a hot meal at some point in the day. That means carrying a camp stove, but it’s not as heavy as it sounds – isobutane fuel canisters weigh in at 4 or 8 ounces, while the popular MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove weighs just 2.6 ounces.

In warm weather, you can switch to cold-soaking. Fill a container with water, add your ramen or potatoes, seal it, and set off. When you’re ready for dinner, pop open your container and chow down. Talenti gelato jars are a favorite tool for this.

While time and weight-efficient, it can feel a little demoralizing to eat tepid, mushy ramen noodles after a long day on trail. As with all things thru-hiking, you’ll have to test out these methods to see what works best for you.

Get Comfortable — But Not too Comfortable — With Critters

No matter when you start the trail, you’re guaranteed to spot at least a few non-human animals out there. Wildlife ranges from the adorable (newborn fawns), to the gross (mice), to the scary (rattlesnakes and black bears).

On-trail guidelines for animal interaction are much the same as in national parks. Watch your step, don’t touch, and keep your distance as much as you can. Try to respect all the animals you come across – even mice. You’re in their home, after all.

Sleeping far away from your food also helps to prevent unwelcome visitors (because your hiker stink will not keep bears and rodents from sniffing out your ramen). Store food in bear lockers when available or perform a bear hang. For a successful hang, practice at home first.

Break Out the Bug Spray

Much like larger animals, bugs are an unavoidable aspect of life in the woods. But permethrin and picaridin go a long way toward keeping off pests, especially ticks and mosquitoes.

Spray permethrin on your clothes (including socks) for an anti-tick treatment that lasts up to 70 washes. Picaridin goes directly on your skin and repels virtually all mosquitoes for six to eight hours. Unlike DEET, picaridin won’t damage your synthetic gear, either.

You should also carry a few doses of a prescription antibiotic to be taken after a suspicious tick bite. Pharmacies can be hard to reach from the trail, and the northeast is a hotbed of Lyme disease, so having medication on hand will provide peace of mind.

Take Care of Your Feet…

Hiker standing on a trail with muddy hiking boots
If your feet fail you, your thru-hike will fall apart

Speaking of priorities, keeping your feet healthy should be near the top of your list. After all, they’ll carry you from Georgia to Maine or vice versa. What seems like a small hot spot can become a big problem in no time, so pay close attention when something feels off.

You may have heard of World War I soldiers suffering from trench foot. The AT has that, too, so thoroughly dry your feet at the end of each day. Another painful but common problem, plantar fasciitis, can be fixed with the right pair of insoles.

If blisters bother you, check the fit of your boots and your hiking socks. Loose socks will cause blisters and tight boots will cause blisters – in general, thru-hiking will cause blisters. Moleskin bandages and Injinji socks, which fit around each toe, help immensely.

… And the Rest of Your Body

Don’t forget that you’ll have aches and pains everywhere else, too. Day hiking and backpacking can help prep you for the trail’s physical demands, but if you’re thru-hiking fresh off a desk job, your body will probably have a hard time keeping up.

Even when you’ve got your “trail legs,” walking 3,000 feet up and down mountains every day for months on end takes a toll. Know when to take a zero-mile day, scale back your ambitious itinerary, or simply set up camp and crawl into your ultralight tent.

Other remedies include Pepto Bismol tablets for stomach issues (more on that shortly) and glucosamine supplements and knee braces to protect your joints. These precautions may seem overkill now, but they are well worth the extra weight and space.

Know How to “Go”

To paraphrase a common AT saying, you’re not a true thru-hiker until your first, well… intestinal emergency. Long before that happens, you need to know all the dirty details of trail bathroom breaks.

Generally, you have two options: a privy (outhouse) or a cat hole. Cat holes should be at least six inches deep and 200 steps from the trail and water sources. Plain old toilet paper will decompose naturally, but toss used wet wipes and any other trash in town.

Oh, and if you feel you might have something contagious, like norovirus, try to avoid shared spaces. Considering how many folks are out on trail, it only takes a few hikers to pass around something truly nasty.

Prepare for Cold Nights

Snow dusted trees along the Appalachian Trail during a thru-hike in the Smoky Mountains
Get ready to experience a fair amount of bone-chilling nights on the AT

Appalachian weather is famously fickle, so don’t be shocked to encounter a heat wave in February or see snow in April, like I did. If temps stay above freezing, you can bundle up and carry on. Below freezing, though, keep a few things in mind – or rather, in your sleeping bag.

Tuck your water filter into your sleeping bag at night so your body heat will keep the filter from freezing, which damages parts and renders it unsafe for drinking water. Before going to bed, empty your water bottles so you don’t wake up with blocks of ice.

You should also sleep with your portable chargers, cell phone, and gas canisters. While cold weather won’t destroy any of these, keeping them warm makes for easy use in the morning. For yourself, bring a sleeping bag liner, a puffy jacket, a beanie, and heavy socks.

Get to Know Your Fellow Hikers

If you start the trail thinking you’ll walk in solitude for the next six months, guess again. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, roughly 3 million people visit the trail each year, and more than 3,000 attempt a thru-hike. So, why not get to know your fellow hikers?

While thru-hiking, many hikers form close-knit groups known as tramilies (trail families), often traveling together for months. A tramily can help boost you both mentally and physically during tough sections of the trail, and they may even become some lifelong friends.

Even if you consider yourself a lone wolf, you should still chat with at least some of the hikers around you – people knowing your location and identity makes the trail safer for everyone. Plus, you can save money by splitting hotel rooms or Uber rides.

Stay Safe Out There

With bears, rough weather, and occasional stories of shifty hikers, the AT can sound like a scary place. However, thru-hiking is far less dangerous than, say, rush hour traffic. Rest assured that there are plenty of ways to stay safe on the Appalachian Trail.

Before your hike, download the Far Out app, which was known as Guthook back in my day. Although you can and should use a guidebook, Far Out is more up to date, and hikers can share information via the app’s commenting feature.

You may find cell phone service along much of the trail, but you should also invest in a satellite phone, especially for solo hikers. The Garmin inReach Mini can send check-in texts, share your location, and call Search and Rescue in truly dire situations.

Know Shelter Etiquette

A sign that says "WELCOME TO OUR NECK OF THE WOODS" in front of a shelter in the woods
Shelters can be a godsend, but you’d best know the rules

Of the three major U.S. trails, the Appalachian Trail is unique in providing a series of shelters — three-sided, usually wood buildings — where hikers can crash for the night. Some shelters are incredibly spacious and clean, while others you should avoid like the plague.

As you settle in for the night, follow shelter etiquette. Sleep with your feet or head facing the open wall to maximize space. Hang your pack on the wall if possible; if not, keep it out of everyone else’s way. Finally, do not eat in the shelter, as this will attract mice.

Most shelters already house at least a few fuzzy little critters. Even when you don’t see signs of mice, protect your food and all other belongings accordingly.

Embrace the Trail Magic

If you’ve seen any thru-hiking YouTube videos, you probably already know of the beautiful phenomenon known as trail magic. Free food, water caches, and even car rides are provided by trail angels – locals who usually just want to help out and hear a bit about your hike.

Some trail angels bring cold drinks and boxes of hiking snacks to trailheads, where they welcome hungry hikers. But trail magic can also be a cooler filled with beverages and left in the woods somewhere. Whatever form trail magic takes, it often appears right when you need it most.

Go ahead and snag a Clif Bar or Gatorade. While trail magic is typically free, some trail angels do ask for optional donations. No matter what kind of trail magic you encounter, be courteous and don’t take more than you need.

Write it Down

Although your thru-hike might seem unforgettable in the moment, those months can blend together after you summit Mount Katahdin or Springer. Chronicle your journey with a trail log, which will make for a great souvenir of your walk in the woods.

Years later, you can check your journal to recall exactly where you stayed during a snowstorm in Vermont, or the name of the trail angel you met in Georgia. A trail log can also serve as an informational resource as you plan your next thru-hike or backpacking trip.

Also, take far more pictures and videos than you deem necessary. That way, you can always remember exactly how you pulled off your thru-hike and where you were during your favorite on-trail memories.

Stop and Eat the Blueberries

A pile of freshly foraged blueberries being held in two hands
Slow down, take a deep breath, and eat the blueberries

Unless you’re on a deadline, slow down and enjoy your thru-hike! Hiking is the main event, of course, but don’t forget to check out everything else the Appalachian Trail has to offer.

From hole-in-the-wall restaurants to swimming spots and more, unexpected delights are the most exciting parts of thru-hiking. Take spur trails to viewpoints, bag off-trail peaks, and even (responsibly) forage for blueberries or morel mushrooms.

Basically, make sure you’re not so focused on the miles that you miss out on some of the trail’s best moments. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is so much more than just putting one foot in front of the other.

Hike Your Own Hike

If you haven’t already heard this proverb, you’re about to (approximately a million times over the course of your hike). It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Hike Your Own Hike!

Everyone’s hiking experiences will differ due to trail conditions and personal preferences, which might change and even surprise you. Do you want to stick with the awesome crew you met at Neels Gap? Do you want to spot every single white blaze?  Do you need to take a few extra zero days to rest your body as your trail buddies push forward?

As with any other endeavor, you can complete the Appalachian Trail in countless ways, and your choices won’t make you any less of a thru-hiker. What matters most is knowing your boundaries and valuing your priorities.

Final Thoughts on Hiking the AT

Sunset over a mountain range during a hike of the Appalachian Trail
Ready for an AT thru-hike of your own?

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what hiking the Appalachian Trail entails. Whether you’re section-hiking, day-hiking, or finally embarking on that dream thru-hike, follow the tips above to ensure your trip is the best it can be.

Backpacking can seem like a demanding activity, but it’s also one of the most rewarding wilderness experiences out there. With solid planning and logistics, your hike will likely go much smoother than you think.

The beauty of the trail is that many details will vary. As you decide when to start, what gear to bring, and how long your hike should take, know that there is no right or wrong choice (so long as you follow leave-no-trace principles).

Whatever way you hike your own hike, I hope you feel a little more confident about hiking the Appalachian Trail. So, lace up your boots and get out there!

Last Updated on March 19, 2024

Photo of author

Cu Fleshman

Cu Fleshman is a writer, editor, and hiker originally from the backwoods of South Carolina. She now resides in Southern California where she hikes, backpacks, and always has an eye out for her next adventure.

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